In the spirit of copying everyone else, I thought it timely to have a look back over the last decade through the prism of Norwich City. Yes (before anyone else reminds me), technically the new decade doesn’t begin until January 1, 2021, but the new year is a twenty-something, so that’s good enough for me.
Part One of my tour of the decade concluded with the departure of Neil Adams. As he exited stage left, a spikey Scot who said “sorta” a lot was handed the stripes by David McNally and made quite the entrance.
While handed only a watching brief for the away trip to Bournemouth, a red card for Jonny Howson was the trigger for Alex Neil to head to the City dugout. The rolling up of his sleeves as he swapped directors’ box for technical area was the perfect metaphor for the four months that followed.
Neil, fresh from a promotion with Hamilton Academicals, was bursting with ideas and passion. His no-nonsense tones on the fields of Colney were the perfect antidote to a squad that had talent but had lost direction.
The much-discussed sense of entitlement that pervaded that group was almost tangible. They considered themselves too good for the Championship but were coasting and unprepared to put in the work needed to make that quality count.
Neil and his enforcer, Frankie McAvoy, were quick to make their mark and between the Bournemouth game and a final day against Fulham, they won 14 games, including a 2-0 win against you-know-who when Bradley Johnson unleashed that River End howitzer. That was a good day.
While automatic promotion eluded them, the playoffs were the stuff of legend. And created legends. A 4-2 aggregate win over Suffolk’s finest was, as it transpired, merely the aperitif ahead of a Wembley day that none of us will ever forget. It was captured perfectly by Jon Rogers…
The joy lasted for a few weeks until it dawned on us how rotten it is to be Norwich City in a pre-Premier League transfer window.
It was a squad that needed some surgery if it was serious about surviving in the Premier League but we ended up signing Youssouf Mulumbu, Robbie Brady and Dieumerci Mbokani on loan. Note: Not a centre-back in sight.
As a result, we went into battle with a defence ill-equipped to handle Premier League strikers and while it briefly flickered to life in the autumn with four wins, including the famous 2-1, Tettey toe-punt win at Old Trafford, it was hard going. The blame game didn’t take long to kick in but most of it was aimed over the head of the manager and instead in the direction of the board room.
Neil’s hands, in true Norwich City tradition, had been tied – constrained by a lack of pounds and an equivalent lack of clout. We ended 2015 with that sinking feeling – the very antithesis of how we felt seven months earlier.
A run of ten games that spanned early-January to mid-March produced eight defeats and two draws and that was just about that. Three wins followed but we scuttled off whence we came without causing too much of a stir. The football was okay in flashes but only in flashes. Timm Klose had arrived in the January along with some bloke called Steven Naismith.
Our fate was confirmed with still two games left to play but it had been coming several weeks before that. Aside from the lack of goals, a back-four that had Russ as one of its regular centre-backs was never going to be solid enough.
Alex Neil’s stock remained intact but the lack of reinforcements the previous summer became the subject of yet more scrutiny. It didn’t need a Stuart Webber to identify that centre-backs were needed but weren’t forthcoming.
A fractious summer ensued with David McNally – soon to be former chief executive – clashing with fans on Twitter. It was an unhappy ship but one that looked to have a squad capable of bouncing back at the first attempt, especially if they could shift that sense of entitlement inherited by Alex Neil.
Alas, that sense hadn’t gone far and was quick to reveal itself in the new Championship season. Despite the summer signings of Alex Pritchard and Sergi Canós, among others, the air of ‘we’re not supposed to be here’ never went away and the unwarranted self-belief was further buoyed by just two defeats in the first 13 games.
The poop and the fan were in close proximity though and eight defeats in the next eleven – including a 5-0 thumping at the Amex – saw it explode into a horrible, disgusting mess as 2016 became 2017.
Some decent results in the early part of the year threatened to reinvigorate City’s season but a run of no wins in five in February/March was enough for the board to call time on Neil’s tenure. By then, even the playoffs were a distant dream. Alan Irvine, one of Neil’s assistants, was briefly handed the stripes but his was only ever a short-term appointment.
At boardroom level, Jez Moxey – once CEO of Wolves – was brought in to replace David McNally after a lengthy recruitment process, but ultimately the search to find him lasted longer than his stay in the Fine City. Moxey didn’t fancy Norwich. The feeling was entirely mutual.
And thank god it was, because out of this wreckage came the appointment of Stuart Webber and a whole new direction for the club.
Webber used the final weeks of the 2016/17 season to assess what was before him and didn’t particularly like what he saw – neither in terms of infrastructure or culture. Changes were needed, big time.
And so the Webberlution began, with a German tinge. Daniel Farke and some compatriots arrived to head up a new-look coaching department.
It was a summer like no other. 13 new players arrived, most of them unheard of, but we cared not because there was a freshness and verve around the place that felt right. Alas, there were also players, and probably staff, lingering around who didn’t share the bold new vision and whose presence was perceived by Webber as a hindrance.
One by one they departed… eventually.
In addition to incorporating the new faces into his new team, Farke also identified the need to promote from within. We were proudly self-funding and so ‘youth’ was going to play an important role going forward. In addition to promoting Jamal Lewis, one James Maddison was handed a first XI starting berth.
The new philosophy on the pitch took time to bed in – a whole season in fact – and there were times in 2017/18 when the dissenting voices outnumbered those willing to give it time. The biggest change for the fans was a passing philosophy that absolutely didn’t involve any hoofing it out from the back.
The River End took its time to buy into it. Some are still on that journey.
By the end of 2017, the team had overcome a rotten August, during which all sorts of questions were being asked, but it was equally clear that a promotion push was unlikely to be on the cards – even with Maddison ripping up the Championship.
Three wins in 17 games between mid-February and the end of the season were enough to keep the dissenters interested, but it was clear this was a project that needed time.
A final 14th place in the Championship in isolation didn’t offer a good look but there were positive signs – at least there were until Maddison looked to have suffered a serious injury in his final game in a City shirt at Hillsborough on the final day. As City’s most saleable asset he was earmarked to help fill a fairly ginormous financial black hole.
Luckily it wasn’t the ACL-type injury we all feared and he, along with Josh Murphy, was sold as planned to keep the wolf from the door.
The financial constraints that had blighted the club throughout the decade were not about to go away but Webber’s ability to wheel and deal still saw plenty of new faces arrive that summer – among them Teemu Pukki, Emi Buendia and Tim Krul.
The rest – *cliché klaxon* – is history. The ride was thrilling.
A tricky start to the season, which included a particularly painful Carrow Road drubbing by Leeds, was part-remedied by a 1-1 draw at Ipswich that, in turn, was used as the most extraordinary springboard. Only three more defeats would follow as Farke’s men took us on a journey none of us will ever forget.
A single defeat between January and May – a 3-1 loss at Preston – was the only blot on the Canary landscape as they thrilled us all with some of the most aesthetically pleasing football known to Man. It was wonderful (literally) and culminated on that joyous Carrow Road Saturday evening when Blackburn were the visitors.
A 2-1 win at Aston Villa one week later confirmed us as champions. It was the cherry on the top. Mayor McLean led the celebrations. City Hall sparkled. The city rejoiced. Webber and Farke beamed.
It was a job extremely well done. And all on a shoestring. More legends were born.
And then, to spoil it all, along came the Premier League.
Having not a pot to pee in but be expected to go toe-to-toe with clubs that are funded by small oil-rich countries, oligarchs and billionaires is not a happy place to be – we’d already discovered that to our cost. Webber and Farke play the straight bat to any questions of extra funding but a summer transfer window armed with the smallest transfer pot the Premier League has ever seen was always going to be the ultimate challenge.
As a result, the spending was of a level befitting said transfer pot and a mix of freebies, loans and Sam Byram were added to a squad who, almost to a man, were rewarded with improved contracts.
Still our hopes were quite high but it’s been tough going, for the most part, interspersed with some excellent results against teams who set out to play rather than frustrate. The win over Man City set against the backdrop of a horrific injury crisis was another of those ‘I was there’ moments.
We will likely end 2019 in the bottom three but still with hope. We’re not done yet.
So, that was the decade that was. Four promotions. Two title wins. A Wembley win. And two relegations.
There really is no other word for it. You know the one… starts with ‘roller’, ends in ‘coaster’. Would we have it any other way?